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Aaron Jay Kernis

Aaron Jay Kernis

Leta E. Miller
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 216
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    Aaron Jay Kernis
    Book Description:

    Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Grawemeyer Award, Aaron Jay Kernis achieved recognition as one of the leading composers of his generation while still in his thirties. Since then his eloquent yet accessible style, emphasis on melody, and willingness to engage popular as well as classical forms has brought him widespread acclaim and admiring audiences. Leta Miller's biography offers the first survey of the composer's life and work. Immersed in music by middle school, and later training under Theodore Antoniou, John Adams, Jacob Druckman, and others, Kernis rejected the idea of distancing his work from worldly concerns and dared to compose on political themes. His Second Symphony , from 1991, engaged with the first Gulf War; 1993's Still Moment with Hymn was a reaction to the Bosnian Genocide; and the next year's Colored Field and 1995's Lament and Prayer dealt with the Holocaust. Yet Kernis also used sources as disparate as futurist agitprop and children's games to display humor in his work. Miller's analysis addresses not only Kernis's wide range of subjects but also the eclecticism that has baffled critics, analyzing his dedication to synthesis and the themes consistent in his work. Publication of this book was supported by a grant from the Henry and Edna Binkele Classical Music Fund Informed and engaging, Aaron Jay Kernis gives a rare mid-career portrait of a major American cultural figure.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09644-0
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    “I’m so pleased you’re writing about me,” said Aaron Jay Kernis when I approached him about this book. “My only hesitation is that I feel I should be twenty years older.” Indeed, readers may pose the same question: what justifies a book about a composer who is only fifty-four years old?

    On the most basic level is Kernis’s impressive productivity: the large number of substantial works for forces ranging from solo piano to full orchestra. His current Schirmer catalog lists more than one hundred compositions: a dozen orchestral works (including three large symphonies); another dozen concerti with large orchestra or...

  5. 2 Learning the Craft: Early Years and Training (1960–1983)
    (pp. 7-25)

    Aaron jay kernis was born on January 15, 1960, in Philadelphia. For the next eight years his family lived in the Olney area in the northern part of the city. His father Frank (1923–2004) was a mail carrier, a job that brought him great pleasure. Kernis recalls, “He loved to talk to people along his route; he loved the outdoors; he loved to walk.”¹ Frank Kernis also loved jazz, particularly Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, and Ray Charles. The family often went to summer jazz concerts (and an occasional Philadelphia Orchestra concert) at Robin Hood Dell. Frank was a quiet...

  6. 3 Kernis Meets the New York Philharmonic
    (pp. 26-42)

    On june 7, 1983, a highly public—and widely publicized—event catapulted the twenty-three-year-old Kernis into the national spotlight. At 8:00 that evening, in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, in front of an audience of nearly a thousand, the New York Philharmonic spent an hour reading through and rehearsing Kernis’s “dream of the morning sky” (Cycle V), conducted (and critiqued) by music director Zubin Mehta.

    Nearly every biographical sketch of Kernis cites this event, with varying degrees of accuracy. Major national publications ran stories about it at the time as well: theNew York TimesandDaily News, the...

  7. 4 Coming to Grips with History (1984–1991)
    (pp. 43-70)

    For kernis, the period 1984–1991 was one of wandering physically, emotionally, and artistically. He lived in Europe, various parts of the United States, and Canada. He experienced periods of intense loneliness but also the pleasure of a significant romantic attachment. And, after freeing himself musically from strict self-imposed controls, he confronted head-on the challenges of history, coming to grips with the forms and modes of expression pioneered by his predecessors while adapting these traditions to his personal language. His success in confronting these personal and professional challenges manifested itself in commissions for his first symphony (theSymphony in Waves,...

  8. 5 War, with Interludes (1991–1995)
    (pp. 71-99)

    By the end of the 1980s kernis had established a reputation as one of the most promising young composers on the contemporary scene. New York critics approached his concerts with their antennas up and pens poised. Allan Kozinn called him “an eloquent young composer [who] finds an excellent balance between abstraction and lyricism.” John Rockwell characterized him as “exuberant” and “fecund,” noting that he “happily mixes idioms.”¹ Prizes and commissions continued to roll in as well: an NEA Composer Fellowship (1986), a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation Grant (1987), awards from the Koussevitzky and Fromm Foundations (1988–89, forSongs of Innocents),...

  9. 6 Triumphs and Tribulations: Big Commissions, Big Risks, Big Rewards (1995–2001)
    (pp. 100-125)

    In 1995 the american academy of arts and Letters honored Kernis with a $7,500 prize to facilitate a recording.¹ Accompanying the award was a tribute to the thirty-five-year-old composer noting his “Dickensian abundance” in pouring out “many remarkable large-scale pieces…. As each work grows in both precision and eloquence,” said the tribute’s author, “Kernis seems destined to prove that Blake’s ‘road of excess’ leads indeed to the ‘palace of wisdom.’” The extravagant prose proved more prescient than its author could have predicted. During the following five years Kernis would continue down the “road of excess,” churning out new works at...

  10. 7 Family Matters (2002–2009)
    (pp. 126-151)

    Kernis’s millennium prayer that the twenty-first century, through its children, would usher in a “new era” of humanitarianism and peace shattered almost immediately after the century dawned in the devastating terrorism of 9/11. Aaron and Evelyne had just returned from California on the evening of September 10, 2001. Like many others around the country, they heard about the disaster after the first crash and watched on television as the other plane slammed into the second tower. From the George Washington Bridge, they could see the clouds of smoke downtown; the smell engulfed them as the wind blew north. That night...

  11. 8 Looking to the Future
    (pp. 152-162)

    Perhaps the most frequently quoted comment by Kernis is his expressed desire to “include everything” in his music. “I want … soaring melody, consonance, tension, dissonance, drive, relaxation, color, strong harmony, and form—and for every possible emotion to be elicited actively by the passionate use of those elements.”¹ Critics have made much of his embrace of diversity, noting the influence of tonality and atonality, jazz, pop, and Baroque music, modernism and minimalism, intricate counterpoint and static ostinati—or as Mark Swed put it succinctly in 1995, “extravagance and eclecticism.”

    Kernis, however, resists the wordeclecticismbecause implicit in it...

    (pp. 163-170)
    (pp. 171-172)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 173-184)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 185-200)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-206)